The private message I got on my public Facebook page was direct: “You are such a narcissist! Unbelievable. I didn’t want to embarrass you by commenting publicly so I am messaging instead. But you have shown your true colors.” I have to admit I was curious to find out what had sparked this off-the-cuff diagnosis so I inquired and she messaged right back. I had posted that I was pleased with how I had been able to find the perfect photo for a meme I wrote. Well, according to this person, that was a sure sign of a narcissist because good people—the kind who don’t ruin your lives like narcissists do—don’t give themselves pats on the back, not in public.
That got me thinking, of course, about the narcissism spectrum because, yes, we’re all on it. The ones on the far end of the spectrum, those malignant narcissists, are our go-to villains at the moment; I readily admit that I write about them from time to time. I didn’t think I was one of them and I knew for sure I wasn’t on the other end of the spectrum, the people lacking in self-regard and uncomfortable with praise, the ones Dr. Craig Malkin calls echoists in his book Rethinking Narcissism.
Understanding the spectrum and locating yourself on it
I’m a writer which has a number of built-in requirements that go beyond the ability to express yourself. First of all, you have to be reasonably thick-skinned and able to accept both criticism and rejection without losing your mind because editors like to edit and not everyone is going like, much less love, everything you write. Like most writers, I have a thick pile of unsold book proposals. On the surface, this seems to rule out the very end of the spectrum because true narcissists can’t brook any criticism at all. Second, if you’re going to write for the public, you do have to believe that you have something to say that people will want to read and that, yes, your way of saying it is special. That rules out being an echoist but does it make you a narcissist? Third, unless you’re planning on living under a bridge on a permanent basis, you have to be reasonably adept at judging the quality of your own work and assessing whether or not you’ve nailed the Jell-O to the wall or not. Other than a deep strain of Puritanism and a cultural belief that any self-assessment that’s positive is bragging—or inherently a sign of narcissism—there are very good reasons for all of us to judge the quality of our efforts, and especially for a writer. But then, commenting on precisely that got me labelled a narcissist. (Ironically, the meme was about narcissism. Here it is. I was thrilled to find a photo of a peacock on a pedestal and called it “cool.”)
The two ends of the spectrum and the healthy middle
According to Dr. Malkin, you should imagine a line—the narcissism spectrum—with points 0 through 10. People who test out from points 0 to 3 are echoists, people who, as Malkin puts it, “are convinced that being ordinary is the safest way to live.” They don’t want attention, they don’t want to seem needy, and they are vigilant about making sure they don’t act selfishly or arrogant. Alas, they are also uncomfortable when someone gets too close or, even worse, dotes on them. These people actually have deficits in healthy narcissism; they suffer from low self-esteem, accede to or are overrun by stronger partners, and don’t pay attention to their own needs.
It’s the other end of the spectrum—points 7 to 10—that gets the most press so we’ll look at that first rather than the healthy middle at points 4 to 6. At 9 and 10, we have the extreme narcissist—that entitled, approval-seeking, selfish, uncooperative guy or gal who makes no real emotional connection and who has to win at all costs. They’re the ones who inflict real damage on unwitting partners, spouses, children, and even colleagues. At points 7 and 8, according to Dr. Malkin, people show some of these traits but they are leavened by other characteristics because they’re not consistently addicted to feeling special; they’re able to own up to some of their faults, take responsibility some of the time, and can connect with others.
If the narcissism spectrum were In color, and you started with white and kept adding droplets of black, you’d go from white to shades of light and then stronger gray to the deepest black.
Now, about the middle
What happens in the middle is healthy self-regard meets moderation—a person who can feel special when she or he needs to gear up but doesn’t need to feel that way all the time like the extreme narcissist and doesn’t cringe at the thought of being noticed like the echoist. This person has the right balance of self-regard and regard for others; he or she can dream big, be creative and expansive, and even recognize his or her talents without losing sight of themselves, their weaknesses, or—most important—other people.
Most important, they’re capable of love and empathy, and thrive when both are offered to them.
What determines where you end up on the spectrum?
Well, there’s temperament, of course; some of us arrive on earth more introverted than others, while some will be extroverted and rambunctious from the get-go. But, according to Dr. Malkin, what’s more important—and this is familiar territory for readers of this blog—are childhood experiences, and whether or not you were loved, valued, and supported. Those of us whose emotional needs were met in childhood and who learned to trust both others and their own perceptions are likely to have healthy narcissism or self-regard. In contrast, children raised by narcissistic parents who learn that it’s what they do and accomplish and not who they are that matters—in this formula, prizes and accolades are the requirements for love and affection—are much more likely to find themselves on the darker side of narcissistic spectrum themselves. And echoists, too, are made because they’ve learned from emotionally fragile parents—whether those parents are anxious, angry, or depressed—that it’s best to disappear yourself and not roil the waters.
Our deep discomfort with anything that smacks of bragging is evident; even the word humblebragging has found its way into contemporary culture. But still, it’s important to recognize that distinguishing what makes a narcissist is less about bragging than how he or she treats other people. That said, I’m sure there are some people who will label me for writing this in the first place.
READ: Craig Malkin, Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Wave, 2016.
Take the narcissism test at www.drcraigmalkin.com
Photograph by StockSnap. Copyright Free. Pixabay.com